Now the fun begins

It may seem mean to those sports which are just starting up like baseball and softball, but I am back with another hockey column this week. The National Hockey League regular season just ended, and I have to say, it really and truly did not end the way I thought it might.

There were so many interesting and compelling storylines throughout the season, from what was going to happen with current Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos and future star Jonathan Drouin to Patrick Kane becoming the first American to win the NHL scoring title to the crazy 9-0-0 start by the Montreal Canadians, who failed to qualify for the playoffs. In fact, no Canadian teams made the big dance at all.

I am going to pick three teams and key on their journeys to the chase for Lord Stanley’s cup.

First off, the Detroit Red Wings, who came into the season on an incredible run of 24 straight playoff appearances, did not clinch their ticket until their last game of the season. Still, that is quite an accomplishment, all things considered, a quarter-century of playoff hockey. The Wings have come very far from the 1980s when they were better known as the “Dead Wings.”

I mentioned before the season to keep an eye on a certain rookie forward, Dylan Larkin. Larkin led the team with 23 goals and finished tied with Tomas Tatar for third in team scoring with 45 points. Not a bad rookie campaign.

Perhaps more important, however, was the play of goaltender Jimmy Howard down the stretch as battery mate Petr Mrazek showed signs of exhaustion. I know that my friends who are Wings fans will hate me for this, but I do not believe the Wings would have made the playoffs without his strong play.

Pavel Datsyuk has announced this will be his final go-round in Red and White. That might be enough motivation for the rest of the roster to help make sure he goes out on a high note.

Staying in the Eastern Conference, my second favorite NHL team, the New York Islanders, who were expected to make the playoffs but not quite in the manner in which they did, did so by the skin of their teeth. This was supposed to be a breakout year for the Islanders, who debuted a new home and new attitude in September.

Instead, injuries and lack of consisted play marred a difficult campaign. Starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak was reduced to 36 games on the season, going just 18-13-4-3 in those contests. Backup Thomas Griess, a former San Jose Shark, actually had better numbers, starting 38 games, and posting a 23-11-4-1 record.

Excellent young defender Travis Hamonic requested a trade about a third of the way through the season in order to get closer to his family. Late in the season, he suffered an injury he still has not returned from.

Free-agent-to-be Kyle Okposo, former Minnesota Golden Gopher, led the team in scoring for much of the season before John Tavares finally took over late. Sixth-leading scorer Anders Lee was lost in the second-to-last game of the season to a leg injury.

Finally, the San Jose Sharks, who had missed the playoffs last season along with the Los Angeles Kings, earned the right to see those same Kings in the playoffs.

The Sharks changed coaches, captains, starting goaltenders, and top defensive pairings all before the season. That could have been a recipe for disaster, instead, it might turn out to be a pleasant surprise. The Sharks earned the NHL’s best road record at 28-10-3. By comparison, they were just 18-20-3 at home.

The two biggest stories out of northern California this season were the reemergence of Joe Thornton and the “bearded one” Brent Burns. Thornton scored 80+ points for the first time since 2009-10 with 82 to lead the team this season. Burns was just shy of a point-per-game with 75 points in 82 games. His 27 goals set a new franchise record by a defenseman.

New captain Joe Pavelski led the team with 38 goals as he continued his consistent play for yet another season.

Finally, Martin Jones will likely be the starter in goal heading into the playoffs, but James Reimer, who was acquired at the trade deadline, notched three shutouts in eight starts with the team, giving them a competent backup.

No matter who wins the Stanley Cup this season, there will be no shortage of great storylines involved. I cannot wait for Wednesday night for all the chaos to ensue.